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for people who care about the West

How Western towns ​profit​ from detaining immigrants

Detention facilities provide economic stability for many rural towns.


In early October, Hillary Clinton was in the middle of a short speech at a gala in Washington, D.C., for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, when an immigration protester stood up and began shouting. Juan Carlos Ramos, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant with the advocacy group United We Dream Action, heckled Clinton about private immigrant detention facilities.

He held up a sign that read "Hillary for immigrants in prison." Clinton continued, unperturbed, with her introductory speech about celebrity chef José Andrés. Carlos Ramos was escorted out of the event shortly after. Later, he issued a statement about the protest, calling on Clinton to drop donations from lobbyists tied to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, two of the main contractors involved in the unprecedented growth of the United States’ immigration detention system over the last few years.  

Not only do politicians like Clinton receive campaign funds from private prison companies, but many communities in the U.S. — particularly in rural areas — depend on those businesses as well. In fact, some Western towns have come to rely on the growing number of private immigrant detention centers to boost ailing economies.

Undocumented immigrants end up in detention for various reasons. Some are caught by local law enforcement without proper papers and others are caught at the border, seeking asylum (or turn themselves in). Even immigrants with legal status are susceptible if they are convicted of a crime, sentenced, and then detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after having served their time. There’s no limit for how long a person can be held by ICE and in complicated cases, individuals can end up imprisoned for years.

In the post-9/11 border security crackdown, immigrant detentions exploded — a trend that’s continued under the Obama administration. But the policy meant to target lawbreakers has meant something else in practice: soaring numbers of “low-priority” undocumented immigrants with families and jobs in the U.S. have been detained and deported  even those with no criminal records

The number of people detained by ICE has doubled since 2005, to around 400,000 per year (the last few years have seen a slight decrease as illegal immigration has slowed). Accompanying the surge was a proportional increase in the taxpayer money going to immigrant detentions: from about $700 million in 2005 to nearly $2 billion in 2014.

There are now more than 1,500 detention facilities across the country — and 67 in the West — run by the ICE. The majority, however, are contracted out to private companies or to counties, which house detained immigrants in local jails.

As the number of detentions soared, so did the profits for corporations like CCA and the GEO Group. But rural towns and counties have also benefitted. In most states, prisoners boost official population counts, making shrinking rural areas look like they’re growing. That increases state funding for things like the local police force, libraries and social services.

A number of suicides and allegation of abuse have surfaced at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. But the privately run facility housing detained immigrants is a crucial source of jobs and revenue for the town of Eloy.

Eloy, Arizona, is one of those places. The town of 17,000 sits halfway between Phoenix and Tuscon and was historically an agricultural hub. Harvey Krauss, the city manager, says that as the industry died out by mid-20th century, Eloy tried to attract new businesses. In the 1970s, CCA showed up. It’s now the town’s largest employer, providing 1,600 jobs at four prisons — 425 of them at the Eloy Detention Facility, one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the nation.

The Eloy Detention Center has been a focal point of criticism for human rights advocates. Since 2003, ten detainees have died in custody there, the most in any of the facilities owned or contracted by ICE. Over the years, the Eloy Detention Center has become a source of frequent reports of abuse and sexual assault. Last June, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva helped spur an investigation by the Department of Justice into those reports and other allegations of mistreatment of detainees at the facility.

But for the town of Eloy, CCA’s facilities are integral to its finances. “We’re generally very supportive of CCA,” says Krauss. On top of boosting the town’s state revenue funding, CCA pays Pinal County two dollars per day for each inmate held in its facilities. As part of its agreement to operate in the county, the payments increase as more beds are filled. That money translates to $2 million out of the town’s $23 million budget.

“We’d survive without it,” Krauss says. “But the loss would be significant.”

The relationship between immigrant jails and rural economies is not exclusive to Arizona. In southern Idaho, four county jails detain immigrants and northern Montana hosts three such facilities. In those regions too, the economic draw was obvious: As logging and agriculture declined in the ‘80s and ‘90s, prisons help keep the communities afloat.

“Areas that got prisons also got upgrades in roads and infrastructure,” says Rebecca Thorpe, a political science professor at the University of Washington who studies mass incarceration. “One facility could end up servicing the whole town.”

Although Hillary Clinton never responded to Juan Carlos Ramos’ comments, she has spoken out against immigration detention facilities. At a campaign stop in Las Vegas earlier this year, she criticized a 2014 congressional mandate that ICE have 34,000 beds available every night — and a built-in incentive to fill them up.

The immigrant detention quota legislation was first passed in 2009 and efforts to repeal it have repeatedly failed, says Cristina Parker, the director of immigration programs for Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group. She blamed a perception among many Americans that sees undocumented immigrants as the source of societal problems like crime and job-losses. Parker also notes prison companies’ massive lobbying efforts on immigration and immigrant detention issues that affect their bottom line. A parallel effort happens on the state and local level. CCA, for instance, was instrumental in writing Arizona’s 1070 law, considered the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure passed in a long time – and would increase demand for CCA’s services.

Those laws are one reason Harvey Krauss isn’t worried about Eloy’s future. Despite new calls to reduce America’s prison populations — and rein in its immigrant detention system — CCA recently announced plans to expand.

Here in Arizona, he says, “it’s a growth industry.” 

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.